Minding the language

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Tech-savvy and tech-led digital journalism, which is freewheeling and all over the place, and eludes restructuring or reordering into any new hierarchy, is becoming the growing despair of the journalistic fraternity. Photo: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS

V.S. Naipaul. The tension between his language as a Trinidadian and the literature he was exposed to and imbibed, and how this kept him from writing for five years was the subject of an essay he wrote for The Times Literary Supplement in the 1960s. Photo: ALASTAIR GRANT/AP

WE are not quite sure what our public thinks of our journalism. What the American public thought of its journalism was tested many years back in an opinion poll which rated the comparative credibility of a number of occupations which had to do, one way or another, with the public, and which saw the journalist faring just a notch better than a second-hand car salesman. That, we can credibly assume, was as much a public insult as a public opinion. And that view is only likely to have gotten worse, going by the plummeting fortunes of the American news media since then.

There is no reason to believe that our news media will fare any better if we were to venture a similar objective survey here. Because the shenanigans of our news folk hardly inspire trust or confidence in the tribe: Paid news in all its manifestations; journalists as corporate wheeler-dealers as exposed in the Radia tapes; journalists as corporate blackmailers as revealed in a reverse sting operation by a business house; journalists on the take who, unlike their corrupt political or business quarry, get away with it because of an omerta code from a misplaced sense of thick-as-thieves professional loyalty; journalists on the make who curry favour with politicians and hack their way up the power ladder; and journalists who rouse the rabble and, after they have done so, like Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, sit back and relish the prospect of what they have unleashed—“Mischief thou art afoot, Take thou what course thou wilt!”

There is, then, enough and more to despair about the way journalism is going. Which is not to dismiss, or detract from, the solid work put in by those committed to the mission and cause of journalism in the furtherance of the public interest. Journalism owes the serious vestigial respect, as against the sensationalist following, it continues to enjoy to these gatekeepers who hold on steadfastly to best practices in the profession. But then gate and wall have been rendered irrelevant by technology which has devoluted journalism and dispersed it across the formal and social media scape. From an agency of agenda building, it is now metamorphosing into a constantly renewed social construct. Tech-savvy and tech-led digital journalism, which is freewheeling and all over the place, and eludes restructuring or reordering into any new hierarchy, is becoming the growing despair of the fraternity.

In a small, postmodernist, almost off-off-academia study, Heidegger, Habermas and the Mobile Phone, published at the turn of this century, George Myerson (of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra fame) plays with the idea of “mobilisation” redefining the social order of communication. He is punning on the word to suggest how the mobile phone conjugates modern society, drives its commerce and confers it its new identity. It is already some 16 years since then and we now know that mass communication, including journalism, at the consumer level is all about delivering it on the handheld smartphone.

Such mobilisation, Myerson argues, may not be in the interest of enlarging or enriching the public sphere. Myerson draws on Habermas’ later elaboration and construct on his Public Sphere where he draws a distinction between “life world” and “system”. Habermas saw his public sphere belonging to the life world and not as a part of the system, by which he meant the state apparatus and the market economy. He, further, thought it the job of democratic societies to “erect a democratic dam against the colonising encroachment of system imperatives on areas of the life world”. In this scheme, the mobile phone was, for Myerson, already so pervasive and pivotal that it had become systemic. What should have been a democratising device in the life world, and therefore in the public sphere, had turned into a tool of the system.

“The mobile,” Myerson writes, “would be the supreme medium for turning everything around into a system, driving out the process of reaching understanding, replacing meanings with messages, consensus with instructions and insight with information. In that process the life world would be shunted aside. We would be left, coordinated but not connected, in a shared web of systems for working and consuming, learning and being together. At last there would be a ‘technicisation’ of the life world.”

Changing language of news

This technicisation of the life world is impacting journalism not only in terms of the modes of its delivery and distribution, but also in the forms of its expression. Mobile journalism, Twitter-driven journalism, Blog and Facebook-post journalism, are making demands on the language of news. The demand on the new age journalist to deploy sparse and pared down language that matches or fits the mobile device or the small screen of reception comes on top of the varying requirement for innovative and differential language for the multimedia application of digital journalism. Language is mixed and matched, chopped and diced, reduced to the symbology of emoticons, expanded to plumb feeling through immersive simulation. The written and spoken language, the body language, the language of signs, of feelings, find a strange equivalence in this techno-mediated realm.

It is not a hybrid language. It is a language of miscellany. The shift in language is nowhere as clear and distinct as that from the writerly form suitable for print journalism to the spoken form that works for broadcast. There, one could labour the difference between textuality and orality. A conversational style in simple language using words with less rather than more syllables as far as possible (speed and reading length of a news item for TV or radio should ideally be measured in syllables per minute rather than words per minute as in print) and conveying not more than one idea per sentence so that it easily registers in the viewer’s/listener’s mind (remember, goes the explanation, the viewer of a newscast gets only one shot at it, unlike the reader of a print publication who can go back to it again and again if he has not understood it)… these and a few other specifics set the two, print and broadcast journalism, distinguishably apart.

Journalism & literature

Journalism already was a category of language which was seen as distanced from literature. Creative literary writing went against the grain of hardcore journalism and was suspect for its very creativity, which meant it took liberties with facts; whereas journalism was ostensibly all about factual writing.

Litterateurs were understandably patronising about this practice or discipline of language which at its routinised level was seen as hackneyed and pedestrian and referred to mockingly as “journalese”. But there was, of course, great journalistic writing in its own right, and the pared down, lean style, the clear tenor and imminence of tone it often indicated fed back into conventional literature to electrify it and alter it, and as differently as a Hemingway and a Marquez did. Both of them turned their experiential language of journalism into marvellous literature: Ernst Hemingway by a measured reining in of the imagination and by a consummate economy of expression and Gabriel Garcia Marquez by giving free rein to the mind to transmute, almost like alchemy, characters, situations and events into a zany realm not so much fictive as hyperreal, instantly celebrated as magic realism.

A recent edition of The Times Literary Supplement reproduces an essay by V.S. Naipaul published in it in the 1960s where the author speaks about the tension between his language as a Trinidadian and the literature he was exposed to and imbibed, and how this kept him from actually writing for five years, although he had set out to in earnest at the age of 18.

“The language,” as he explains the dilemma, “was ours, to use as we pleased. The literature that came with it was therefore of peculiar authority; this literature was like an alien mythology. There was, for instance, Wordsworth’s notorious poem about the daffodil. A pretty little flower, no doubt; but we had never seen it…. To open a book was to make an instant adjustment…. I needed to be able to adapt. All Dickens’ description of London I rejected; and though I might retain Mr. Micawber and the others in the clothes the illustrator gave them, I gave them the faces and voices of people I knew and set them in buildings and streets I knew. The process of adaptation was automatic and continuous. Dickens’ rain and drizzle I turned into tropical downpours; the snow and fog I accepted as conventions of books. Anything—like an illustration—which embarrassed me by proving how weird my own recreation was, anything which sought to remove the characters from the make-up world in which I set them, I rejected.”

Towards the end of the essay Naipaul touches on the fuller scope and import of language unconnected to, or unenlightened by, literature. It is, in this case, the language of smell (much like that of immersiveness in the digital multimedia narrative). He is sitting one evening on the verandah of the house of an Indian family in British Guyana when the smell of a flower familiar to him from his childhood wafts across to him, but he can’t put a name to it. His host informs him that it is the jasmine flower. “Jasmine!” Naipaul exults in the discovery, “So I had known it all those years! To me it had been a word in a book, a word to play with, something removed from the dull vegetation I knew…. I stuck it in the top buttonhole of my open shirt. I smelled it as I walked back to the hotel. Jasmine, jasmine. But the word and the flower had been separate in my mind for too long. They did not come together.”

The word and the flower, its smell and its appearance and its feel, are coming together in the digital multimedia retelling of it. It is at the technological cutting edge of journalism that this tapping into the capacity for language which, as we learn from the linguistic theory of Noam Chomsky and others, is genetically hardwired into us, is taking place, so that it proceeds beyond the forms and expressions to which we are habituated, so that it exceeds the conditioning of our known literature. Whether this journalistic language in the making will, in turn, redefine and rewrite literature is a thought we may turn to—perhaps even with some legitimate despair.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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